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The Olympics would be the ruin of karate...

Posted Aug 13 2012 12:00am

As we draw close the end of the London 2012 Olympics the IOC (International Olympic Committee) will start their analysis of the games and start voting on which sports to relegate from the next Olympics in Rio in 2016 and what new sports to add. Karate is on the list of potential new sports to add to the games next time around.

KARATE IS NOT A SPORT! At least real budo karate is not a sport.

The problem with taking a traditional martial art and turning it into a sport is that the sport version, by necessity, is reductionist. Sport reduces a martial art to a few basic moves that can be executed quickly and efficiently in a rule based environment. Karate as sport is reduced to not much more than gyaku zuki, mawashi geri, ura mawashi geri, ashi barai and various combinations of these moves. In many modern karate clubs the students actually think that kumite means ‘sport karate’. How far from the original meaning is that?

Then there’s kata – we all know that when kata is done for competition purposes it becomes all about aesthetics and performance. You don’t actually need to know what a kata means to put on a good performance. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see kata performed well; I admire people who can do it, there is a lot of skill in a good kata performance. I’m not knocking a good performance but all style and no substance is not what kata is about. Again competition reduces kata to a superficial state.

We only have to look at the traditional martial arts that are already represented in the Olympics to see the negative effect it has had on the art. I watched some of the judo live at the ExCel centre. I was bowled over by the atmosphere of being in the arena watching the event. I wasn’t so bowled over by the judo though. I hadn’t watched a judo competition before and had expected to witness some spectacular and varied throws, locks and pins. Most of what I saw was contestants clawing at each other to get a grip on the gi, leg sweeps and a quick pin on the ground. It seemed very reductionist – I’m pretty sure judo has more to offer than that. In fact I know it has more to offer than that because I have seen judo demonstrations at martial arts festivals. Even though judo was developed as a combat sport I’m sure Kano would be turning in his grave at how reductionist it has become.

Then there’s taekwondo. Like karate, taekwondo was not developed as a sport originally. I’m pretty certain that sport taekwondo does not resemble the traditional art one iota. It has been reduced to bouncing around with loose arms and kicking out to the body and head like a couple of kangaroos! But real taekwondo has forms and self-defence applications just like karate. The only way traditional taekwondo manages to survive is for it to have branched off from the sports version and be governed by the Kukkiwan (Traditional taekwondo headquarters) in Korea.  I doubt there are many traditional taekwondo clubs left outside Korea though.

Once a traditional martial art becomes an Olympic event the rush to get ‘Olympic Standard’ competitors means that many clubs turn themselves over entirely to training only in the sport version of their art. Clubs teaching the full range of the art will fall into decline unless they divorce themselves completely from the sport.

The situation for karate would be even more dire than it is for taekwondo. The reason karate is not yet an Olympic sport is because there are too many styles, too many governing bodies (that don’t agree with each other) and too many styles of competition.  Some styles risk going out of existence altogether: Assume karate becomes an Olympic sport but full-contact competition isn’t allowed – what will happen to styles like kyokushin karate? Will its popularity decline? And what about weight categories? Would they have to be introduced? Would sport karate as we know it have to change out of all recognition? Some styles wear a full-range of protective gear and others have nothing other than a gum shield and sparring mits. So even if you are a fan of sport karate you would probably have to make many changes to your sport if it became an Olympic event.

Karate is already practiced as a sport you may argue. We already have national and international karate competitions in a range of styles and yet traditional karate still exists – so what difference will making karate an Olympic event make?

I think it will make a big difference. Karate competitions currently are not broadcast on mainstream TV and tend to attract only audiences of family, friends and fellow sports karate enthusiasts. It remains below the consciousness of the general public. If you make it an Olympic sport then it will be televised worldwide to a very diverse audience who will expect to be thrilled and entertained by it. Karate is not entertainment, it is budo. To entertain the public sport karate will become more sensationalist – you already see this in some kata competitions where kata have become like gymnastic displays. It will only get worse.

The Olympics will be the death knell of real karate. Karate should be a life-long pursuit, accessible to all for the whole of their lives if they so wish. If we are only left with sport karate then, like most sports, in will become the domain of younger people only.

Anyone who values REAL karate should be opposed to karate as an Olympic event. What do you think? I have put a poll in the right side bar of this blog so that you can vote, or leave me a comment…

(If you are a martial arts blogger and you disagree with me then why not write a post giving your opposing view i.e. why the Olympics will be good for karate, and let’s have a debate!)

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